Gold, frankincense and myrrh: bizarre gifts for a newborn
When you have an epiphany – under a flash of popping light bulbs – you suddenly grasp the reality or truth of something.
From that moment on, you see things differently and look at the world with new eyes. This week, the church entered the season called Epiphany when, collectively, we remember those Eastern astrologers that visited Jesus some time after his birth.
Despite being outsiders from a different culture, they had an epiphany, and recognised the reality of who Jesus was.
Have you ever been to a baby shower to celebrate the delivery of a newborn child? I have, and it is customary that you take a present. Appropriate gifts include things like sleep suits, sensory toys, stuffed animals, blankets, bibs and so on – basically, anything soft, fluffy and in pastel colours. You get the picture.
Inappropriate gifts for a baby include knife sets, six-packs of beer, pool cues and hair straighteners. Oh, and while I am listing inappropriate gifts, I might as well include embalming resin, incense sticks and gold – which are the gifts those astrologers presented to Jesus.
Before I continue, I hate bursting anyone's bubble but those astrologers were not kings, nor were they wise men, and we have no idea how many of them there were. All we know is that they saw a star, interpreted that a new royal sovereign had been born in the west, calculated roughly where this had taken place, and went to find him.
Of course, the first place they visited was King Herod's palace because, if you were going to find a newborn prince, that is where he would be. But Herod, not being the nicest guy on the planet (the kind of guy who murdered and exiled his wives and drowned his own children in the palace swimming pool) sent them off to find Jesus so that he could have the boy executed. If there is one thing deranged, tyrannical dictators hated it was competition, and you can read all about it in Chapter 2 in the Gospel of Matthew.
Anyway, to cut a short story even shorter, the astrologers eventually found Jesus and they presented him with their three bizarre gifts – gold, incense, and embalming resin – which become less bizarre when you understand that they were seeing Jesus for who he really was.
For when they found Jesus and his mum, they did not see just a baby or toddler, but saw someone who was three things: a king, a priest and a prophet.
Firstly, Jesus was going to become a king like the world had never seen before – the King of kings – and so they presented him the gift or offering typically given to kings, which was gold.
Secondly, Jesus was going to be a priest – an ambassador for God and someone who represented God to the world. Priests were involved in making people holy and pure before God and, as part of their ceremonies and rites, they would burn incense. This is why those astrologers presented Jesus with a special kind of incense, called frankincense.
Thirdly, Jesus was going to be a prophet, and a prophet was a messenger to the people that spoke the mind of God by communicating how well they were doing in God's eyes and the positive or dire consequences of their actions. Unfortunately, over the centuries, the people did not like what the prophets had to say, and so all but a few were executed. Hence the astrologer's final gift, the gift of myrrh – a fragrant resin used in the process of embalming dead bodies.
Jesus – a king that sanctifies the people and dies.
Those astrologers had an epiphany. Under a flash of popping light bulbs they suddenly grasped the reality and truth of who Jesus was. And what did they do when they first met him? They bowed down and worshipped him.
Many of us have never had the same epiphany that those astrologers had when they encountered Jesus, however, what should the response be for those of us that encounter Jesus in the here and now?
I once attended a church worship service and during one of the songs, a young girl worked the rows with a collection basket. She stood in front of an older woman and held out the basket. The older woman popped in a couple of coins and continued to sing. The young girl fixed her gaze on the woman and stayed holding out the basket. The older woman pouted, dug into her handbag for her purse, opened it, took out a bill, and placed it into the collection.
Still, the girl stayed with the basket in her outheld hand. The older woman raised her eyebrows, looked back into her open purse and took out all the bills and put the lot into the collection. Still, the girl kept the basket held out. The older woman shook her head, took out one of her credit cards, and also placed it into the collection. Still, the girl kept the basket held out. The older woman looked around at everyone else singing and, shrugging her shoulders, placed her entire purse into the collection. Yet, still, the girl held out the basket.
The woman let out an exasperated sigh, took out her car keys, and added them to the collection. But still, the girl kept the basket held out. Exasperated, the woman lost her patience, grabbed the basket from the girl, tossed it onto the floor, stepped into it and held out her hands as if to say she had nothing more to give. Finally, the girl smiled and hugged the older woman.
When we encounter the risen Jesus – when we have an epiphany and come to realise who he is and what he has done – our response is to bring him the gift of ourselves. Jesus' life, death and resurrection was not a theological exercise, but an act of love to draw outsiders – like us – closer to himself. It was and is an invitation to give him our hearts. Therefore, my hope and prayer this week is very simple: may you have a blessed Epiphany!
Heaps of Peace. Rev Gav.
Rev Gav is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm